Declaration

12Apr10

Day eight. You have nothing to declare.  You do not look much like your photo. The customs officer looks down, up, down, trying to draw parallels. Grasping for the immutability of bone structure inside the impermanence of flesh, say, after a couple of false starts. And you want to say to him, I haven’t slept in 24 hours. I haven’t really aged that much. Come on. 

There’s a burning sensation behind your eyes. You taste gin and toothpaste. You get the feeling that you’re canting, pitching forward on the balls of your feet, but in truth you are quite still. It feels like one of those falling dreams where you startle yourself awake, breaking the vertigo.

 You stand, obedient, hands out wide in a crucifix, while the wand that frisks you baulks somewhere in the region of your waistline, divining metal. You produce a handful of gold coins from the pocket of your suit pants. You don’t know how they got there. Your regular currency is no good here, anyway.

Still in the limbo between countries, you can see through to the other side. Loved ones, faces bright with anticipation. Kids hopping from foot to foot, full to bursting. Ill-suited men holding signs. You walk free of them all, through the automatic doors, to the taxi rank. The morning is new and warm. A professional business class nomad, you have nothing but a laptop bag and carry-on luggage. You smooth your hair, check the contours of your lipstick in the side view mirror. It is all going to plan. You will make the first meeting of the day with minutes to spare. You have done your homework. You are commanding and strong. You could fool anyone in the world but yourself.

In your head, in time with the faint click of tyres against asphalt, you are saying, dear God, dear God, dear God. Dear God, after all these years.

You roll down the window and jut your face out chin-first into a lukewarm wall of air. The speed and the buffeting are like a drug, a kind of mental smelling salt that triggers an unsolicited replay of recent events. In your mind’s eye you see your boss crumpled, as near as a grown man can get to foetal, in the bottom of the hotel shower. Fully clothed, the water running cold.

You screw your eyes tightly shut, throwing mascara-caution to the wind. And now you see the one person you have been holding out for, all these frickin years, the so-called love of your life, pulling his jeans up into place in the blue light of pre-dawn. A mere handful of hours ago. You see him sitting on the edge of the bed, cramming his heels into his shoes, looping his belt back through the belt loops. It is tacky and it is alien and it is long overdue. It plays out in your head like a music video and – there, you have thought it, finally – there is something so inevitable, so passé about it all. And there you were all along, all these years, thinking that your heartbreak, your quest for the one thing you couldn’t quite get your hands on, was unique. And still you don’t know where this leaves you.

Exactly a week ago you joined Facebook. One of the guys in your team had just returned from his honeymoon and had posted his wedding photos up there. You had resisted this social networking phenomenon for so long on the grounds of time, point and inclination (i.e. no time, no point, no inclination), but you wanted – you want – to be the kind of manager who cares. Strike that winning balance between familiarity and authority, collegiality and distance. Or, in all honesty, it’s just that you want to be liked, above all.

And so you make your first cyber-foray, in bed late on a Tuesday night, after your second attempt at sleep. A half-finished report open on your laptop, a bottle of wine on the bedside table and Girls of the Playboy Mansion on mute, casting blue and tan and peroxide-blonde light into the darkened bedroom. You are groggy with the after-effects of a failed sleeping pill, halfway between calm and vexation, thinking that maybe the doctor had fobbed you off with sugar pills, and unwilling to accept or even consider immunity as the more likely explanation.

There are friend invitations already waiting for you. The more people you find, the more people you find. A virtual cousin, virtually long-lost, pops up in the corner of your screen with a battery of questions. In her profile photo she is holding a baby, presumably her own. Dear God, you didn’t even know she had a baby. Does she have a baby? It feels good, the connection. It makes you think, just for a moment, that unburning bridges might actually be a worthwhile use of your time. That there just might be a return on investment.

The thing is, with time and without really noticing it happening, the world you knew has sort of shrunk on you. There are ‘close’ friends you haven’t spoken to in a decade, although the years have clumped together, indistinguishable and shapeless. Sure, you might have liked to pick up where you left off but you don’t know how to. And besides, surely they could have made touch with you. Plus you don’t go out all that much, and hardly ever with an open mind when you do. You don’t make friends the way you used to. But, then, you don’t have a whole heap of time at your disposal for just hanging out like you once did. And sometimes it’s just easier not to. When you’re rationalising it, you call it streamlining. Emotional minimalism.

 A couple of nights you even fall asleep unaided, in the small hours of the morning with your laptop purring on your chest, fingertips resting on the home keys.

On day two you get a friend request from your boss, which you find odd for a number of reasons, not least of which is that you have heard him openly deride facebook more than once.  Minutes later you attend a meeting together to discuss six-monthly salary adjustments and neither one of you mentions your new friend status. He is particularly dismissive, you notice, and so you make a special effort to ask him about his daughter’s ailing horse, his wife’s French cooking classes. He mutters something about the expense, and as you are getting up to leave for the next meeting he says to you, I didn’t know you were a Leo. You hug your compendium to your chest, preparing to deflect.

On the morning of day three you receive a friend request from Sebastian Baker-Jones and the very notification throws you into a tail-spin. For 12 hours you neither confirm nor deny. You stand too long at the bathroom mirror. You get butterflies standing at the water cooler. You cut back on coffee just to try and keep the soaring feeling in check. You feel like skipping. You feel like vomiting. You take your PA out for a drink in the middle of the day, for the first time in history without a work-related ulterior motive.

Your PA proceeds to tell you, at great length, about the chinks in her new boyfriend’s armour, about the attention-seeking three year old daughter he never declared upfront. You point out that in a mirrorballed bar, in the early hours of a Saturday morning, you’re hardly going to get the full story. The omissions are all part of the mystery. Between pinot grigios you tell her that chinks do have a tendency to show up better in the cold hard light of day – that’s what one night stands have got going for them. You lean in close, conspiratorially, and say, I challenge you to find a man who doesn’t have chinks in the old armour. Especially at our age. Once you’ve said this it strikes you that she is a few years your junior, but she is kind enough not to pull you up on this.

You try and find an angle, a way of casually introducing the Sebastian predicament, but nothing presents itself. Oh, your PA says as you are paying, have you noticed John is being odd lately? John is your boss. Yesterday he had no socks on. Today he looks as if he is wearing yesterday’s suit, the same shirt, and he said he misplaced his wedding ring gardening in the weekend. Plus, do you think he has been sunbedding? Right, you say, and no. You file your receipt in the expense claims compartment of your wallet. Can’t say I noticed. Maybe he just got a spot of sun in the garden? You thank her for the heads-up and make a mental note to give her idle hands more work to do.

Throughout the six o’clock news on the third night you look at Seb’s profile photo for clues. For the better part of a decade, for reasons of convenience and sanity, you have chosen to believe that he had fallen off the face of the planet. For at least a year, maybe even two or three, you have thought of him no more than once or twice a month. To your encouragement, the statistics have dropped right off. Various reports have come back to you through various channels. There are certain facts you know for certain. He has two children, both girls. At one point in time he went out with an Australian daytime news presenter. He filmed a lower-than-low-budget film in the south of France, a black comedy called Mort une Mort, and funnily enough the film died a death all of its own. He made it to the news in England five years back for dredging up a human hand in a canal on a barge holiday. You can’t picture a barge holiday being his thing.

After quashing an email war that had come about that day through slapdash forwarding and an inappropriate use of the cc function, you pour a gin and tonic into the tallest glass in your house and log back in to facebook.  It is almost as if you are expecting something to happen once you have done this, something instant and utterly magical. This is something your ex-therapist worked hard on with you to curb. Your sense of entitlement, or what he called your solipsistic tendencies. The belief that good things should just happen to you, unbidden.

And something does happen. Your landline rings. Your landline, exclusively the domain of family and telemarketers. It startles you. So soon, you think. And then you realise you do not disclose your phone details on your page. There’s no way he could know them. It is your step mother. She wants to know if you have seen her best tablecloth and if you have wished your Aunt Susan a happy fiftieth. You snap (why the hell would you know where it is? And Susan is her sister, so not even technically a real aunt). And then you backpedal, a familiar routine in most of your step-daughter-step-mother engagements. You can hear your father in the background ordering Chinese takeaways in loud staccato bursts, repeating himself.

You go offline, give yourself a rushed manicure, careful not to mess the nails on your drinking hand. At the bottom of your second gin you wonder what your life would have been like if it had been completely Sebastian-free. It’s not like he had even been your boyfriend, ever. When prying family members asked if there was a special someone in your life, he was the reason you said coyly, well, there is someone… but then trailed away every time, the tale too pathetic to tell.

He is the reason, if you’re being honest with yourself, why no man since has made it anywhere near even the outskirts of your heart. Back then there was a flurry of interested suitors. A full dance card. And there were liaisons, some spectacular and some spectacularly bad. There were comings and goings, mostly goings. And then they all sort of dried up. It got harder to make friends of a romantic persuasion. It became hard work. The only expressions of interest now were from opportunistic and usually drunk co-workers (well, only twice) or serial bar-lurkers who were no doubt married or up for one thing and one thing only, and only once. The one-time offerers.

There was someone, once. It lasted a year and one day. He was rock and roll and made you feel like you were living dangerously, which of course you weren’t. You did coke just that one time and you couldn’t stop rubbing your nose, completely paranoid, jumped up. He liked the way your voice sounded in the shower. You liked that he liked the way your voice sounded in the shower. He looked good in the photos. He was a good looking accessory. And the fact that you had qualms about taking him home to meet your father and step-mother was an added bonus. But you just couldn’t feel it. It was the one thing you couldn’t fake.

You go back online and there is nothing. Your friend numbers are climbing. You check your bank balance. Respond to the few remaining untouched emails, ready for morning. A message from your boss pops up in the chat box in the corner of your screen. What are you doing? He may as well have asked, what are you wearing. You cringe, just slightly, before typing, WORKING. What else were you going to say? You change your status to offline before he has the chance to reply. Then you feel bad, but it’s too late, too much effort, to do anything about it. Care factor zero, as your PA would say.

You go to bed with lavender oil on your pillow and a sense of anticlimax that goes on to dog your dreams. When you wake on day four you have a metallic taste in your mouth, a coin-sized pool of saliva on your pillow and the feeling that you are standing on the brink of a giant chasm that has been there forever, quite without you noticing it. You’re not sure if it’s a hangover from the dream, or if Seb’s two-dimensional re-entry into your life has opened something that’s better off shut. You have two options. Embrace it or deal with it the only way you know how, by sidestepping it, covering it over, creating diversions with eye masks, sleep aids, meditation, yoga, hypnotherapy, promotions, shoes.

For the first time in you can’t remember how long you can’t be bothered moving and, if it was an option, you wouldn’t. You’d call your ex-therapist to get to bottom of this dream you can’t shake if she wasn’t such a smug, all-knowing bitch. You have a conference break-out session to choreograph and a proposal deadline to oversee. You have a plane to catch this evening for a two-day conference in the provinces. As you attempt to coax the faulty zip on your overnight bag for the third time, you pause to listen to your ‘inner chatter’ for signs of negativity.

As always, you are the first of your team in the office. A red flag announces new notifications. In your haste to get to them you burn your lip on your extra long black. Your desk phone is flashing messages.  You accept his friend request. It’s like an out-of-body experience. You are momentarily paralysed. You have an overwhelming urge to shriek.

He has left a message on your wall. Hey you. It’s been too long.

That’s it. Two meagre sentences to turn inside out, over and over. Too long since what? But you know. It was a botched ending of grand – even Shakespearean – proportions. Once you’d stopped feeling aggrieved, put together the late-breaking pieces of the puzzle and figured out just how botched it was, it was too late to tell him. You didn’t even know where he was. And for all you know now, he is still none the wiser. You stood him up.

You met Seb Baker-Jones, widely and somewhat unfortunately known as BJ, towards the end of your first year of university. He was the boyfriend of your flatmate and old school friend, Janey. You were mates the way everybody was mates at university. Same parties, same haunts, same gang. You never even saw him as anything but a friend until you both were in honours year. Janey was out of the picture (that’s another sad story altogether) and Seb had taken up with Zoe, a slightly older woman, then Zambesi shop assistant, who was attractive in a stark way, with a blunt fringe that intersected with her eyebrows and pale skin that sometimes seemed to glow purple, depending on the light.

You’d come to spend a lot of time with Seb when he came to you to ask for help with Janey. For no apparent reason she had started to behave strangely. She grew erratic and thin and withdrawn, and anything you both tried seemed to make it worse. Janey dropped out of school halfway through the year and moved back up north to her parents’ place. You and Seb started hanging out a lot, just as friends, talking on the phone for hours on end, studying together and sometimes top and tailing on nights when it got too late to go home. And then you stopped top and tailing, still just friends. You would often stay up with him until the sun came up, wrapped in blankets, drinking tea and talking.

At the time you were going out with a mostly absent med school guy and you sometimes joked with Seb that he would make a better boyfriend. You thought nothing of it. Seb made you mix tapes and wrote you letters. He bought you strange trinkets from op shops and you made him dye your hair a few times. You hugged him like you would a brother, if you had a brother. You sometimes said to him, don’t take this the wrong way, but if I didn’t know any different I would have sworn you were gay. He was your best friend ever.

You don’t know exactly when it changed, just that when it did there was no going back. The change was absolute. It made things murky. You didn’t like it one bit, but were powerless.

It was not long after he started going out with Zoe. It wasn’t like you were put out, nothing that obvious. But he had less time to hang out with you and you found yourself mooching more. Zoe didn’t get your friendship and looked at you funny. You wanted to make fun of her gothic outfits and her voice to him, but whenever you did he cut you short. After a while he said he shouldn’t sleep in the same bed as you, it wasn’t right, and then he stopped coming around in the evenings, saying Zoe didn’t like it. You preached to him about choosing her over you, about forsaking a friendship. He said he couldn’t be around you, not for a while, and he even cried a little bit. And when he left, and you didn’t hear from him in days, it felt like your heart had been broken for the first time ever. You spent four days in bed. You pulled out every photo you had of him and spread them out on your bedroom floor. You couldn’t believe how stupid you had been, how naive. You wanted to ask him how he felt about you, but he wasn’t returning his calls.

Towards the end of the year, the day exams finished, you bumped into him at a party. He was oddly aloof and you were partly soporific and partly belligerent after an afternoon drinking in the sun. You asked him where his girlfriend was. You called her Hoey and thought this was hilarious. You drank on the balcony together from a cask until he had to prop you up against the weatherboards. The details are hazy. You remember stroking his hair and telling him you couldn’t live without him. You remember cigarettes and head spins. You remember kissing in a hammock in full view of the partygoers, the weight of his body against your chest, rocking. The smell of bonfire, the taste of sick.

You don’t remember how you got home, but you wake in your own bed. Seb is awake on the sofa, staring at the ceiling. He comes over, presses his hand against your forehead, kisses you there and says he has to leave now. You nod and close your eyes. You don’t know that it is the end. The world is too bright just then, too unsteady.

You know he is going to England soon, indefinitely but not forever. You nurse a hangover and try to keep flashbacks from the night before at bay. When the hangover has subsided you wait for him to call. You wait and wait.

Of course, these were pre-broadband days. The internet was a relatively new thing and yours was the only computer in the house to embrace this new technology, connected by a five-metre tripwire of an extension cord to the phone jack. You shared the internet with everyone in your flat, especially Jono, who as far as you could tell spent his days stoned and working on a novel that never seemed to grow in length. You never really knew what Jono was looking for on the internet, just that some mornings you would wake up and he would already be there, or still there from the night before.

So a few days after the party you return from whatever you were out doing, in a bit of a funk. You endure the hiss and scrape of the dial-up connection and attempt to reorder your desk. When you move the keyboard you find a lone post-it note. It says, meet me by our swing at 3. I need to talk to you. Your heart lurches. This is it.

You find Jono in the kitchen, trying to dry out a rained-on joint by microwaving it. You brandish the note and ask him where it came from. He apologises in a roundabout way, tells you it was on your door. This morning? You ask him. He nods, but has to think about it a bit first before he does.

You make it to the swings in time for three. It’s a windy day. The swings are pushing themselves. You wait until 4.30. In your mind you turn over every possible explanation. You’ve got the wrong swings. You’ve misread the note somehow. By now a part of you knows that your chance has been and gone. You don’t know anywhere in the world you want to be right now. Everything is grey. You are sure that it will stay that way forever.

Days later, when your other flatmate returns from a shoe buying weekend in Sydney she says to you, did Seb find you? You manage to get from her that he came round looking for you the morning of the day before you found the note. Your responsible flatmate told him to leave the note, as she was on her way out the door to the airport. Jono had removed the note and then forgotten about it, and you had made it to the swings 24 hours too late. By which point Seb was winging his way to the other side of the world, incommunicado.

A week later you bump into Zoe buying bagels. She says, I hope you’re happy, in a flat tone. You play dumb, although it isn’t hard. He always wanted you, she says, and you never saw it. She doesn’t even hate you any more, you can tell. A year later you find out that she has had his child, that she and the child have flown to England to make a go of it. You want to genuinely wish the best for them, but you cannot.

You surrender your botched PowerPoint slides to your PA to patch up. You can’t concentrate. You post a message on his wall.

Where are you. When can I see you.

This isn’t like you at all, this desperation. For all you know he is living in the Mediterranean in wedded bliss. Once you have posted the note you can’t take it back.

Your boss pulls you into a meeting room and sits you down. He asks you why you cut him off on facebook last night. You can’t tell whether he is hurt or irritated. You don’t want to dignify this with an answer, but you do anyway. I was busy then, and I’m busy now, you tell him in a low voice. You are not looking forward to sharing break-out duty with him at the conference.

Ever since his message you have been off your game, misfiring, shaky. You are late to your plane to the conference and drop your laptop on the tarmac. There is a crack through the screen and when you power up all you get is a giant electric blob.

It is only just dark when you get there. You search the hotel for computer facilities and unearth nothing but wireless in the rooms. You force yourself asleep with pills. Waking to your phone alarm at four in the morning on day six, you cannot practise your delivery without your presentation. You scribble notes onto hotel notepaper and resign yourself to winging it. To be honest you don’t really care much. It will go well or it will go badly, and either way it will be done with.

You are running late to the opening breakfast but find your boss has saved you a seat. You mumble at him through a mouthful of cereal. You ask him if you can borrow his laptop. He tells you it is in his room. You just need it for one thing, one minute. You are so distracted that you don’t even explain to your boss about your laptop accident. Before the nine o’clock session you take his room card and sneak away. He follows you. You need his password.

You sit on the bed, waiting. It seems to take an age. You sitting there. Your boss hovering. You try to shield the facebook page from him, pretend that all you’re doing is getting your presentation off the shared network, which is second on your list. He has written on your wall.

I am in Auckland until the end of the week, then flying back to Singapore. You?

You bite your lip. I am in Auckland tomorrow night. Just for the night before flight to Melbourne first thing. We could meet?

You thank your boss and save your presentation to a memory stick.

At the end of an average but satisfactory day, at the cocktail function, you need to ask your boss for his laptop again. It pains you to do it and he is pissed. Up close you notice he is unshaven. Again he follows you to his room. You are uncomfortable but desperate.

5pm? Viaduct?

This doesn’t work for you. It is too early, too out of your way. But this time you will make it work.

You agree, suggest a bar.

Your boss has his hand on the nape of your neck. He is weaving.

You slam his laptop shut and pull away.

Why did you lead me here, he slurs. You want me.

No, you say. I don’t.

I love you, he says, reaching for your shoulder.

You don’t even know me, you tell him, and it is quite true.

Later in the night, as you are leaving early for the airport, skipping out on the last day of the conference, you stop by his room to check no lasting damage has been done. His door is open wide. You find him curled on the floor of the shower, his white singlet and white shirt (the staple of his wardrobe) plastered to his skin. He is hiccupping and soaked and doesn’t appear to recognise you. You turn the taps off and drag him by the hands onto the carpet. You tell him to get changed and get into bed. You leave him as he fumbles for his socks (also white).

Day seven, waiting for Seb reminds you of that day on the swings. This is it. You are nineteen again, but better dressed. You have everything, and you have nothing, to lose.

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2 Responses to “Declaration”

  1. Beautiful K. Beautiful.

  2. 2 Jo

    in fact – three beautifuls!


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